The Forgotten Soldier

ISBN: 75-95981
Review Date:

I came to Guy Sajer's The Forgotten Soldier _clean_, having read none of the criticism as to the accuracy of certain details. I leave this to others here. Having read the book (all 465 pages), I'm no more qualified to judge its authenticity as a historical document. I can say that Sajer's book is good, and even if it is fiction, I wouldn't care. The details, the conversations, the internal musings of a young man in the middle of the Russian campaign (and of a 30-something narrator/author trying to make sense of it all) are apart of a time and place students of the period should study.

If The Forgotten Soldier is indeed a work of non-fiction, it's a striking testament to the friendship among soldiers and of the utter waste and senseless of conflict. No one is spared on the Russian front, and it is a miracle of no short order that Sajer and his friend Hals made it through the campaign together. If indeed it is a work of fiction, then you've just read one of the finer works of post World War II imagination. Judge for yourself. Where else can you read about a crashing Russian fighter meeting a white horse in a field? You can find many similar bits of unlikely happenings among the many hundreds of descriptions of death, among them soldiers crushed by tanks, dead and mutilated German soldiers with severed genitials shoved their in mouths (courtesy of Russian partisians), and of a friend of Sajer's hung by German MPs for having food from a crashed supply truck.

One of the striking details of the book is the frank discussion of fear. There are numerous references to soldiers pissing and shitting themselves in the midst of some battle, a detail that is glossed over in many popular American memoirs. It's a continuing problem as one soldier notes ("I'm tired of shitting myself") and you begin to understand that fear has automatic physical responses that serve to make the experience even more miserable (and not _great_ or _good_ as some popular authors have argued). Sajer is equally tough on himself, too, near the end of the book for failing to act decisively in a battle after a recent promotion. There he sat, in his hole with soldiers looking to him, frozen with fear. It was one his greatest personal regrets of his experience as a soldier. It's a strange admission as well, coming from a man who admitted to engaging in mercy killings at various time during the Army's retreat west.

There is a good deal of introspection in The Forgotten Soldier and at moments it becomes a little tedious. But there are times that this commentary is especially useful. All too often in period memoirs, we read only of comradeship, personal valor, and there is little frank discussion of civilians and their plight. In Sajer's retreat out of Russia to the west, he shared the road with thousands of refugees, all fleeing the Russians to an uncertain future in the west. His descriptions turn ironic when discussion turns to orphan children fending for themselves on the road, consigned now to a life without hope. His question becomes to do you help you crying children who will soon be dead? We often read of heroic soldiers or units, but not often of children without parents, some killed by strafing aircraft, others doomed to a rat-like existence.

American readers may well find Sajer's frequent discussion of heroic German soldiers in battle regrettably short-sided given the history of the German Army in Russia. While there are frequent musings about death and a soldier's gradual coarsening in the field, there is no larger questioning of Germany's reasons for invading Russia, only a single-minded vision of a soldier's duty. And it is broken down into familiar ground: the only way out is getting wounded or killed. Other than this, you do your duty and look to your friends. There is little else. Hitler is mentioned on occasion, but his role as a leader and organizer of this century's greatest tragedy is not discussed in any meaningful detail. We're only left with Sajer's own internal strife of being a Frenchman conscripted into an Army that lost having to justify his actions in the post-war world. Even so, The Forgotten Soldier honors those who suffered. Me, I'd like to believe it's all true as it stands as a firm witness against brutality and organized murder. But that's just me.

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Visitor Submitted Comments

1. Dusty Miller says:
13 Jan 2007 10:48:47 AM

This book needs to be read with caution for three principle reasons. One: It shows a clear performative contradiction. Sajer writes thathe was subject to intense terror, extreme horror and acute trauma. But if this was so, how can he then recount these experiences with clarity and
expressive confidence. The primary way he mangaes the problem is stylistic. He shifts so easily between first and third pewrosn narration that it is often diffcult to distinguish if he is present within the events described. On one ocasion he tells the reade that he was in hospital when a Soviet attack occured, but the description is detailed and given as if Sajer was actually there(with the screams of the dying and the sound of tank tracks crushing bones and so on). He does not wrtie that I was told this later by survivors or some such. This narrative and stylitic smotthness should make readers think twice as to what kind of work they are reading. Second: There are odd uses of narrative absences. Sajer was operating where it is known war crimes were committed. But although he hints at these, he is always in the hospital or on other duties and is therefore never invovled or present when they occur. Also, Sajers unit is always fighting heroic and victorious defensive actions and winning stunning victories agaisnt terrible odds. But by the next chapter the whole front is in retreat after serious reversals and defeats.These defeats are never really described and seem to happen off the page as it were. This raises the third issue. Sajers Soviet enemy are all a mass horde or a dark Mongol herd. He decribes the Wermacht offensive in the East as the last European crusade. This is serious racism designed to appeal to a Cold War Russophobic mentality and it is little wonder that this book sold well in the seventies. Also, Sajers REd army opponents have no military skill only a degree of ability in artillary bombardment and limitless numbers. One wonders how these disorgansied rabble ever won a serious tactical victory such as Kursk, Belgorod. The book is full of impressive and emotive accounts of the terror and horror of mass combat and the extremes of war and is a very good read, but it needs to treated with a strong dose of critical awareness. Readers should ask themselves what it is that they find attractive about this work (as I do) as this raises some very curious questions in regard to war literature like this.
2. Anonymous says:
16 Dec 2008 03:54:16 PM

Give this man some poor credit- will ya? I am so tired of everybody deflicting always bad against the Germans. If you would all take the time and learn the truth behind WW1 and WW2, you would all see we have been 100% lied to.
3. S W Franz says:
15 Jan 2009 06:52:41 PM

As an amateur WW II historian, I have read and enjoyed The Forgotten Soldier several times. Curiously, I became aware of the autobiography vs. historic fiction controversy only recently. One of the inaccuracies I found on my first read has (to my knowledge) never been raised in the blogs: Sajer's mention of SS Hitler Jugend soldiers fighting alongside the Gross Deutschland Panzer Grenadier Division in Belgorod in summer 1943. I had researched this and found no evidence of SSHJ soldiers taking part in any battles until 1944, beginning with their tenacious, sacrificial stand against overwhelming odds in the Normandy campaign. Certainly, SS soldiers were an integral part of the Citadel offensive in Russia 1943, including Belgorod. But the units involved were 1st, 2nd, and 3rd SS Panzer Divisions, all part of II SS Panzer Corps.
That being said, it is clear to me that Sajer's narrative, whether biographical or not, is an accurate personal description of a war of unparalleled savagery and suffering. Sajer's steadfastness as an unapologetic defender of Germany's invasion of the USSR is regrettable, to say the least. The criminality of Nazi Germany, as exemplified by the many inhuman, criminal acts perpetrated against millions of civilians by tens of thousands of Wehrmacht soldiers, Waffen SS soldiers, and especially SS Einsatzgruppen, cannot and should not ever be swept under the rug.
However, without question, the vast majority of Germans who fought in WW II were decent, honest, regular folk who had the extreme misfortune of being born (as were most Europeans, Russians, Asians, and many Americans as well) in the early-to-mid 20th century. With this in mind, Sajer's accurate presentation of German soldiers as skillful, courageous, and resourceful is a welcome change to the shop-worn, malicious stereotype that permeates American movies and books.
4. Anonymous says:
1 Feb 2010 09:46:09 PM

I read this book about five times. I really enjoyed it. The above descriptions seem valid, and I think why it makes it such a good read: The reader gets in side his head and sees the war through his perspective. What I'd really like to know is whether or not there really was a Herr Hauptman Wesiridau. This character is truly well polished: Similar to Ahab, Indiana Jones, STaff Seargent Barnes from Platoon, you know the type. Perhaps he changed his name? I'd like to know if there was ever such a character.
5. Russian says:
17 Feb 2010 04:06:58 PM

This is not only The Forgotten soldier, this is The Forgotten war. Author described history not only from one side, but from one point of view. He don`t see reasons of war and don`t know difference between political systems of USSR and Germany. Although they are totally the same. He saw only pour german soldiers fighting with cruel russians. German soldiers constantly suffered from bad weather, no supply, hunger.
Only one question - what german soldiers forgot in USSR? Soviet soldiers suffered from the same things. In the end of the book author had good idea, that russians and germans change the rules. Author didn`t see that russians are human beings and has right to live and has right to protect their lifes, families and country. He had only one feeling - he poor fellow, whom must execute orders. He himself is not guilty. Probably it is true, but then soviet people say the same this theory don`t work. Why? May be some people want see NATO and Russia like enemies? May be not. Choose life.

To Dusty Miller. Thank you for real vision of WW2. But I must say than Russians paid very big price for victory. Every seven was killed - 27 million. From them only 9 million in fighting. Germans lost in 3 times smaller - 9 and 3 millions.
6. kenneth eden says:
4 Apr 2010 01:03:42 PM

anyone who needs someone to e-mail i will i like to keep in contack with all soldiers
who needs a friends kenny
7. Anonymous says:
8 Apr 2010 06:51:38 PM

dusty miller is really trying to impress himself, he really has no idea what he's talking about...I read his comments and had a hearty laugh....
8. Anonymous says:
28 Apr 2010 11:44:55 AM

Great read and do not care is fiction.....
9. nam vet says:
13 Jul 2011 11:27:41 PM

I spent 14 months on line 9th inf in VN. I know Id know personal war fiction. There is none in Sajers book. ZERO. His book is authenic pain in every sentence. Nevermind a paragraph. Thats why several readers here have read it 4-5 times, like I have.
Im sure should I write of a Nam incident, and a comrad who stood next to me wrote of the same, there would be descrepencies...yet both of us telling the pure truth as we felt and lived it. Sajer never expanded or lied. He was self-defacing in fact. There is no other book that compares IMO to forgotten Soldier for honesty and "I was there."
I cannot read any books on VN. None. I won't say why. Who cares?
True, Sajer still hates today the mean ol Russians who picked on the his loving honorable military German friends. ??? I have the greatest respect for the NVA-VC. Sajer can't see the rightness in the ass-kicking he deserved and received like I can.
But never think theres fiction in the book. I can feel his true words. I even searched for a lie. Not there.
And...the Dude can write! Well done Guillie (as Paula called him.)
10. Tony 1 says:
28 Jan 2016 07:00:39 AM

I read the book and found it very interesting but felt somewhat uneasy with the claim that it is a true story although I didn't know at this stage that a number of people were questioning the veracity of the story. The problem is, it is written in the style of a novel where for example in the autumn of 1943 Captain Wesreidau gave them a talk in which he started with"Germany is a great country". He is then quoted for two and a half pages! How could anyone remember a speech that long without writing it down and there are other instances within the book. I came to the conclusion, right or wrong, that it's a good novel
11. Sani says:
15 Jul 2016 02:12:47 AM

I read this book like three times. Fascinating and a very good read to anyone interested in WWII. I too have a little doubt about the authenticity of the narration. I mean, how possible is it for someone involved in such gruelling activities to remember happenings and details so clearly? Even conversation were remembered over.

Well, kudos to Sajer. It's not for me to say whether it is a work of fiction or true recollection of personal experiences. In any case, I would remain grateful to Sajer for opening my eyes to the real horrors of WWII. Through this book, I was able to understand, to at least a basic level, how the Army work in times of war, the soldiers attitudes, the fear, hope and anguish.
Thank you Guy Sajer.
12. Kevin says:
26 Aug 2016 06:00:35 PM

Personally I vote that it is non-fiction. My main evidence is on page 271 where he describes being issued an Stg44. This is exactly around the time certain units of the Großdeutschland were issued this weapon as we now know from photographic evidence. Only someone who was actually there then would have known this, and only someone like that would have thought to include this event in their book.
13. Anonymous says:
8 Jan 2017 11:42:10 AM

I've read the book multiple times & it's an all time classic. I prefer to think it a true non fiction. The one error I never hear about on these blogs is the Berlin daytime air raid in the summer of 1943. Our first daylight raid was almost a year later in 1944.
14. Edith says:
14 Oct 2017 03:47:39 PM

Thank you Guy Sajer for writing this book. It is written from the heart. My father was killed on the Russian front in combat in February 1942. He was 33 years old with a wife a three children under 5...God bless you for writing such a great book of your experience in the war and your honesty.
15. Edith Strehlitz says:
17 Oct 2017 11:09:41 AM

Guy Sajer was correct. The British started bombing Berlin in 1942.,,the Americans started bombing in 1943.. Check out WW 2's all there...Reading book again...God Bless you Mr. Sajer for your honest book...Edith
16. J. says:
24 May 2018 09:41:03 AM

There is a good rather long-ish article here

One points at the book being fictional and the other explains why it is genuine by debunking its criticism. I believed it was well off debunked at this point and that the story is indeed true.
17. Simon says:
24 Aug 2018 11:31:53 PM

Excellent opinion from Edith! I’m certain she is correct in believing the account. Her view further reinforces the truth of this extraordinary recollection. Neither the book or Edith are glorifying the regime. The account does represent a very real connection with her father and goes a long way in helping us to understand the enormous tragedy of his death and all the others too. I have just finished this book for the fifth time. I’m 65 now and first read it in my twenties. It is still the best book about ‘the eastern front,’ I have read. Interestingly there is always much I haven’t remembered and my view is the same as first time round. That this is a true account. Very few people I know, if any have any real understanding of the chaos and confusion surrounding this conflict and the history is still only partially known! Who else do we know that can write that evocatively? It is deeply rich feelingful prose written straight from the heart, with a unique gift for writing an account that almost puts you there in his place, ‘God forbid’! A unique part of the account is it’s lack of political bias and political correctness from the uncluttered mind of a very young boy who has incredibly managed to write a lot of it down after the event. It is without prejudice. It is how he saw it and experienced it. People may ridicule or sneer at the enemy but very few on that side at the time saw it as we do now and this is his account. He hasn’t hidden anything. And if the truth be known many of us would have thought and done in a similar way. I’m completely amazed that this has not been studied academically. I am sorry that Edith lost her father and can see completely the connection Sajer has been able to make with her. This is an account of that time written by a 16 year old boy and it was obviously true when I first read it and I have not doubted it again either in the last few weeks as I read it again. In fact my understanding has been further enhanced and while other accounts I have read, and there are a great deal of those, are more factual and historically accurate, this is the deepest and most vivid account we are ver going to see. I really feel for Edith’s loss and those of everyone else at that time! I salute you all!

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